The average Floridian would think the Gator baseball team would be prepared to deal with storms. When gray skies roll in, you hunker down and brace for the worst, or prepare everything you need to battle the storm head on.
It was clear Friday night the Gators were not prepared for a storm the magnitude of the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers.
Tennessee (35-3, 15-1) trounced Florida (23-15, 7-9) by a score of 9-2, a performance that showed the current gap between the two teams.
The Volunteers rained on UF’s parade as it celebrated the renaming of Florida Ballpark to Condron Ballpark, thanks to a very generous donation by the all-time highest donor in school history, Gary Condron.
It was always going to be a weekend of weathering the storm for Florida, trying to avoid as much damage as possible and hoping to pull off a surprise.
That was not meant to be Friday, as nothing they did caught its opponent off guard. Tennessee was all over everything Florida threw its way, especially starting pitcher Ryan Slater.
The freshman got the start in place of the Gators superstar southpaw Hunter Barco, who was shut down this week due to an elbow injury. While a timetable is unknown, it is unlikely he pitches again this season.
Without Barco, Florida is left to piece together a starting rotation that has already been inconsistent. The Gators have struggled to lock down a third starter all year, and without Barco they are left with just one spot in the rotation that is a certainty.
Slater was anything but a certainty Friday. He started off with a quick fly out and strikeout, then allowed a double and a walk to the next two batters. With runners on second and third he was able to roll a groundout to get out of the jam.
It was a big escape as Florida needed a clean inning to start life without Barco.
However, the double and walk were more representative of how the rest of Slater’s night would go than the quick outs were.
In the second inning, Tennessee reared its teeth and put the game far out of reach. This force of a baseball team showed off just how good it is with an offensive showcase in the second inning.
It started with a leadoff walk to first baseman Luc Lipcius, who would both start and end the inning.
That was just the beginning.
Next up was catcher Evan Russell who doubled into the right-field corner and set Tennessee up with runners on second and third. The next batter, designated hitter Christian Moore, drove in Lipcius with an RBI single to open the scoring.
Again, that was just the beginning.
Shortstop Cortland Lawson brought two across as he dropped a single in front of Sterlin Thompson in right field. That brought in a run, then the sophomore misplayed the ball and it got past him, allowing another run to score and Lawson to get all the way to third. 3-0.
Slater finally got the first out of the inning on the fifth batter, getting left fielder Jared Dickey to pop out to third. He hit the next batter, second baseman Jorel Ortega, then right fielder Jordan Beck drove in another with a single. 4-0.
Slater got center fielder Drew Gilbert to pop out to short for the second out and set up a massive at bat. He had a chance to keep his team somewhat in the game facing Trey Lipscomb, who entered the game tied with Jud Fabian for the SEC lead in home runs with 15.
Lipscomb won this battle easily and virtually ended the game with a three-run laser beam that landed on the berm in left field. Just like that it was 7-0, and attention already began shifting to the rest of the series.
Slater was left out at sea in the eye of the storm, trying to keep the Florida bullpen afloat by eating as many innings as he could. He got through 4 ⅔, allowing one more run the rest of the way. The Gators have done this a few times this season, where one big inning does them in and costs them a victory.
“I don’t really know what to say at this point,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
Once they fall behind big, things get away from them quickly. Oftentimes, they lack energy and let at-bats go to waste.
“It’s hard to have energy when you’re down 7-0 in the third inning,” catcher BT Riopelle said.
That inning was about all the game had in it. The Gators got a couple runs, one in the third and one in the fifth. The score in the fifth came on a solo trot by Mac Guscette, a nice consolation prize for him.
Tennessee reliever, Ben Joyce — known for throwing anywhere from 102-104 mph — pitched in the seventh. He peaked within his first four pitches, with deliveries clocking in at 103, 102, 102 and 103.
Florida will have to put this one behind them quickly and focus up for another huge game Saturday. If the Gators can find a way to win the next two games in the series, it could turn their season around very quickly.
Saturday’s game at Condron Ballpark is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. and will be streamed on SEC Network+. Sophomore right-hander Brandon Sproat gets the ball for Florida, while Tennessee has yet to name a starter.
Contact Ethan Budowsky at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbudowsky.